The Health Card

February 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

In my first post to “Just Like Family,” I related a story in which my mother told me that maids had to have a health certificate to work in a white person’s home.  I scoffed at this and asked her if any of the people who worked for her had shown her a health card.   She didn’t reply. 

However,  I have some new information that suggests black women may have had to get a health card to work in a white home.  In  the 1940s, Alice Childress, an African American Southern playwright,  wrote a scene in the play, “Like One of the Family,” where the white employer demands that the protagonist Mildred, the maid, supply her with a “health card.”   Mildred retorts by insisting her employer and her family also get health certificates to prove they did not have strange white diseases, since she was working closely with them–cooking, cleaning, bathing children, doing laundry–all would put her in close contact with them. 

Another reference to the health card from Segregated Sisterhood: Racism and the Politics of American Feminism by Nancie Caraway: “Not only has Black women’s work experience been far from rewarding but most performed the dirtiest most dangerous, most reviled tasks under the supervision of a white woman “superior.”  This history gives rise to the most painful assumptions which challenge at every turn the Black female’s “femininity.”  One such scenario involved a white female employer of a Black maid who demanded to see a health card, fearing germs her family might contract from the Black maid’s unhygienic “filthy” Harlem lifestyle.”

Another reference to health cards is made in the book Battling the Plantation Mentality:  Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle by Lauri Bush Green.  The author recounts a time in the 1940s after WWII when the local Venereal Disease Department of Memphis provided testing for returning servicemen. But local police singled out and arrested African American women and forced them to be evaluated for syphillis and get a health card to show white employers. 

The irony of this for me is that my mother told me that our grandmother’s maid, Llewellyn Hopkins (see photograph above), had a syphilitic heart, which was discovered later in her life.  She “was sent up” from the family plantation in the 1950s, three hours away, to work for my grandmother and was considered “just like family.”

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